Is Your Communication Style Making Your Team Ill?

Manager displaying aggressive communication style with employee
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As managers, we have a unique opportunity to help people learn, grow, develop, succeed and even to navigate life’s challenges. Our daily interactions, including our mentoring and carefully developed and delivered feedback all contribute to the well-being of our employees. And our impact and influence do not stop at the office doors at the end of the day. A well-placed compliment can send a person home with a smile and a light attitude. By the same token, misplaced or poorly delivered constructive feedback is the food of sleepless nights and significant stress in people’s lives beyond the workplace.

In many coaching situations, many clients grossly underestimate the power and impact of their daily interactions with team members. This is particularly relevant when it comes to those managers and leaders with sloppy feedback habits. Regardless of the intent, poorly constructed and delivered feedback can be destructive and even cruel. Consider the case of John outlined below. 

Good Results Masked a Manager's Poor Communication Practices...for A While

One particularly challenging coaching client, “John,” had a reputation as a no-nonsense manager with an aggressive style of driving results. When John inherited a new boss—a divisional vice-president named Rick, following a merger, Rick initially appreciated John’s ability to bring in the right revenue and expense numbers, however, after a while, it became apparent that not all was well on John’s team. Morale was low and turnover on the team was high—two important barometers of a manager’s effectiveness.

During an exit interview with a young rising star on John’s team, Rick recalled being shocked by the input:

Working for John is a daily drill in survival. He’s incredibly smart and he demands performance from everyone and that is fine. Where he hurts himself, is with his feedback. He regularly criticizes our work but rarely gives us enough information to act on for improvement. People perceive it as constant badgering and belittling and they grow tired of it.

After Rick asked for help to remedy the situation, considerable time was spent early in the engagement listening to John and his people and observing him in action. Here’s what was seen and heard: 

  • John’s team members were genuinely frightened of him. They understood that if they did something wrong, they would hear about it. As one employee offered: “Everyone would hear about it—John is a yeller.”
  • After interviewing the team, we spent time observing John in action for one week. There’s no doubt he was (and is) a smart professional, driven to produce great results for his firm. Furthermore, we perceived he genuinely liked and appreciated his team members, however, those positive emotions were lost in some truly lamentable feedback habits.
  • John was fast to criticize but offered little input on how to improve. Most of his interactions were monologues, not discussions, and John almost never offered any positive feedback. His employees often worked to avoid him, particularly if there was a problem because they did not want to invite one of his emotional tirades.

Recognition is the First Step to Recovery

John was initially surprised at the feedback on his feedback and eventually offered a weak defense:

I admit that I am an emotional person. I grew up in a household where yelling was how we communicated, and my parents did not tolerate poor performance at school in sports or in life. If we goofed up, we heard about it.

Once John understood how impactful his communication approach was to his team members, he genuinely regretted his bad habits. In what was a testament to his character, he agreed to seek feedback training and to engage his team in monitoring his progress and holding him accountable for improving his clarity, empathy and overall effectiveness. He kicked off the process by calling a team meeting and explaining what he had learned and committing to improving. He then met with each of his team members and personally apologized.

While John is still driven to produce results and he operates at one speed: fast, his team members and boss all acknowledge that his communication skills have improved tremendously. Six months after consultation ended, Rick, John's boss, had the following to say: 

Morale is up, turnover is down and John has put as much effort into improving his feedback delivery and daily communication as he does into producing great results for our company.

The lessons John learned and applied are instructive for every manager striving to improve his or her performance. 

9 Feedback Lessons From John That Every Manager Should Adopt

  1. Listen more than you talk every day.
  2. If you have to talk, ask questions.
  3. Keep a journal or log of the number of times per day you give orders versus ask questions. Strive to tilt the ratio squarely in favor of questions.
  4. Never yell, no matter how vexing the situation is for you or the firm.
  5. When problems occur—and they do daily—ask for input and ask the individual how he/she wants to fix the problem versus simply issuing orders.
  6. When you have observed behavior that merits constructive feedback, focus on linking the behavior to the business instead of making it personal.
  1. Always, always, always involve the receiver of the feedback in a dialogue to ensure clarity of the situation and mutual development of the solution.
  2. Deliver positive feedback more often than constructive feedback.
  3. Ask for feedback on your feedback. Try these questions as starters:
    • Do you feel respected during our conversations and feedback discussions?
    • Do you feel that I value your ideas and input when we are working through problems and solutions?
    • Is the feedback that I provide you timely and actionable?
    • Does my constructive feedback support your learning and growth?
    • Do we talk about how performance should look in the future?
    • Do I follow up on our feedback discussions?
    • Do I regularly give you positive feedback on your achievements?
    • How can I improve my feedback to you?

The Bottom-Line for Now

Sadly, not every manager is as motivated as John to improve. John’s turnaround was a testament to his commitment to his professional life and to his genuine regard for his employees. With considerable effort, he moved from being a mercurial, hot-tempered manager whose communication style was more destructive than productive, to serving as an effective manager who supported the growth of his team members.

Is it time for you to ask some of the important questions above, and assess whether you are being cruel or kind in your management communications?